Alternative Education

It’s back to school for me yet again. This year I’m working as a Vice Principal in an Alternative School, providing secondary school courses to students from grade 9 to 12. It’s an amazing place, and here’s why:

Safe Alternate Timetable

We have a consistent Monday to Friday timetable, rather than the hybrid model, with its two 2.5 hour classes each that run for a week and then switch with the other two for the following week. Our students attend either for two hours in person in the morning or two hours online in the afternoon, once a week for each credit. They are working independently for the balance of the week, with the goal being to complete two credits each quadmester.

This means that we have very few people in the building, with very small classes in person, so students and staff feel much less at risk of COVID exposure. And students always have the option to shift to online, should the degree of risk change.

No Deadlines

While the goal is to complete two credits each quadmester, our students have the option to “roll over” their students into the next. Our schedule will be the same from September to June, so students can anticipate support until they complete their credits. They can even roll their courses into the following school year, if needed. Our teachers have structured their course content to provide both direct instruction during their two-hour classes, and rich supportive materials in their Virtual Learning Environment (either D2L/Brightspace or Google Classroom). So control is truly in the hands of our students.

There is really no reason why this couldn’t be the case in our traditional secondary schools, but we have strong cultural norms that function to deny flexibility to our students.

Personalization

Because we have intake at multiple points in the year, and students are progressing at different paces, our teachers provide individual programs and support to each student. Our class sizes are very small, and our teachers are able to customize the program for each student.

Our students thrive in this environment, with very few returning to a traditional secondary school, but remaining with us until graduation.

First Names

All of our staff are addressed by their first names. This serves to “flatten” the organization, and puts everyone on the same level. I may be the Vice Principal, but I’m “Terry”, not Dr. Whitmell. Our Principal oversees seven alternative program sites, so she is here only a few times a week, but she is known by her first name, as is our custodian, the office staff, and our educational assistants.

This is a strong cultural indication to our new students that they are not in a traditional school, and with that realization comes hope and optimism that the rest of the school will be different as well.

Optimism

In all that we do, the focus is on success. Missing are detentions, penalties, suspensions, and many of the control mechanisms of a traditional secondary school. Instead our teachers can, as our school vision says, “Inspire Success, Confidence, and Hope”. Our students may remain with us until age twenty-one, and with a small teaching staff of two dozen they are able to forge strong relationships.

Support

We provide a range of programs, from grades 7 to 12, serving students whose needs can be academic, social, emotional or just a need for a safe place. Despite what we read in the media, students who are suspended or expelled are not abandoned by the education system. Instead they are enrolled in one of our programs, and are able to access Child and Youth Workers, Social Workers, and a range of community agencies as well.

A Safe Harbour

With all the uncertainty and fear we have been experiencing in the past eighteen months, I am thankful that I am working and contributing in such an amazing place!

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